The prompt and comprehensive investigation by the prosecutor’s office into killings at a recent protest in Totonicapán is an important step toward accountability in Guatemala, Human Rights Watch said today.
At a news conference on October 11, 2012, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz announced charges against an army colonel and eight soldiers for the deaths of 6 protesters on October 4. Paz said that arrest warrants were issued following an investigation conducted by 125 agents from her office, who collected testimony from 150 witnesses and extensive forensic evidence from the crime scene including spent shell casings, tear gas canisters and blood samples, and carefully studied pertinent photographs and videos.
“The attorney general’s actions send a clear message that crimes such as the killing of the Totonicapán protesters will be investigated promptly and with determination by her office,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “That is one of the most effective ways to prevent serious crimes such as these from being repeated in the future.”
The killings occurred when protesters blocked a highway in Totonicapán, nearly 100 miles west of Guatemala’s capital, to protest a number of changes promoted by the government, such as raising electricity costs and more onerous requirements to obtain a teaching license. In addition to the six people killed, more than thirty people were wounded.
Paz said the evidence indicates that the colonel charged in the case did not follow protocol in coordinating his actions with the national police, who were also responding to the protest, and deployed soldiers under his command to the area without identifying an escape route. The investigation determined that eight of the soldiers had fired their arms. Two will be charged with carrying out extrajudicial executions, and the remaining soldiers with attempted extrajudicial executions, Paz said at the news conference.
In a news conference on October 5, President Otto Perez Molina had said that the first shots at the protest had been fired by private security guards, not soldiers, and that seven soldiers had fired into the air “because they feared for their safety.”
After meeting with foreign diplomats on October 9, Foreign Minister Harold Caballeros said at a news conference, “Although it sounds very bad to say it…every day we have two times the number of the eight deaths, so it is not such a big deal.” After receiving criticism via his twitter account for the comments, Caballeros called the critics “jerks” and disparaged them, saying they should not believe everything they read.
The determination of the soldiers’ guilt should be left to civilian courts based on the evidence presented by prosecutors and defense lawyers, Human Rights Watch said.
“President Perez Molina and others should not be making comments prejudging the culpability of the suspects or others, but rather should allow the investigation to proceed independently,” Vivanco said. “Comments by Foreign Minister Caballeros dismissing these tragic deaths as unworthy of serious attention are particularly shameful.”